Oblivion: A real fixer-upper

By Shamus Posted Saturday Jul 1, 2006

Filed under: Game Reviews 33 comments

This is, more or less, what Oblivion is supposed to look like:


And this is what Oblivion looked like for me, right out of the box:

You’re kidding me, right?

Outdoors was even worse. The ground was made of checkerboard tiles of stone and grass, making it look like a big quilt. You couldn’t even see the roads. Fog didn’t work. Shadows didn’t work. The ground was flat shaded, ugly, and brightly lit at all times. Hanging moss and cobwebs didn’t blend right, so instead of a little whisp of white hanging in the air I would see a big black billboard with a picture of moss or cobwebs on it. The distant terrain mesh didn’t render properly, and would interfere with the nearby terrain. This would result in very large flat-color surfaces sticking out of the ground which were non-solid, but would block my view.

I applied the patch. I updated my drivers. Made sure Direct X was up to date. I uninstalled, re-installed, and repeated all of the previous steps, and still the world was totally messed up. No matter what I did with the settings, I couldn’t get it to work. For all of this uglyness, the game ran painfully slow.

The game has torches you can carry. Spells that create light. Spells that give you “night vision”. I never needed any of it.

My graphics card is on the low end of the system requirements (GeForce FX 5500) but it isn’t even at the bottom. As far as I’m concerned, if the lighting doesn’t work, your entire graphics engine is a waste. Lighting is the most important thing a graphics engine needs to do. For it to fail on such a fundamental level for a machine which is fully up-to-date is inexcusable. They should have made the game work on FX cards or raised the system requirements. Note that the current patch is the “final” patch. They have no plans for any more updates, and people in my position are just stuck.

Enter Oldblivion, a user-made mod that replaces the shaders in the game with ones that work, or work better, or faster. I installed this mod and the game started working right. It’s a brilliant little piece of software. It has adaptive settings that will adjust the LOD and view distance based on framerate. It turns off the specular shader (the one that causes the largest performance hit) if the game gets choppy. It fixes all sorts of visual bugs and glitches that made the game annoying or ugly. Bethesda ought to send these guys a cut of the $50 I paid for this game. Seriously.

It used to be that developers wrote software, finished it, and then sold it. Then we got to the point where they wrote software, sold it, and then finished it. Now we’re to the point were they write software, sell it, and wait for end-users to finish it.

I imagine the next step is that devlopers will sell us their design document for $50 and let us write the game ourselves.


Later (March 17 2007): Dear kids. Make sure you read this before you go making a fool of yourself in the comments.


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33 thoughts on “Oblivion: A real fixer-upper

  1. Cineris says:

    Yuck. Hooray for modders, though. Gotta love how gaming communities actually get things done.

  2. It’s amazing to me that a mod could do something so fundamental. A lot’s changed, eh?

  3. Smitty Werbenmenjenson says:

    I behold the mind of Shamus. And I am moved.

  4. hank says:

    I’ve got a high-end machine and have actually applied mods to *increase* the resolution of the textures. Unfortunately I’ve also had to apply mods to smarten up the AI for wandering monsters (out of the box they ignore you at higher levels, making the whole ‘lost in the woods’ experience less interesting), fix the problem with the levelled lists (out of the box, bad guys always have loot that is your level… so there’s no point in taking on a challenging opponent), fix the problem with the levelled quest items (out of the box, unique quest items retain the level you had when you got them, making them instantly useless), make weapon damage more realistic (there’s still no way around their decision to have all blades be be based on the ‘Blade’ skill, so a thief that becomes proficient with a dagger is automatically good with a broadsword), change the GUI to shrink the onscreen info (for better immersion) and rototill the maps & menus (it’s pretty obvious the UI was designed for consoles), and about a dozen other non-trivial hacks.

    On the one hand: kudos to Bethesda for allowing such a strong mod community to prosper.

    On the other hand: *DAMN*. Shameful indeed.

  5. Pixy Misa says:

    Ah. I got the Xbox 360 version. Can’t mod it, but at least it’s not totally screwed up.

    Still sucks as a game, tho’.

  6. jdhays says:

    World of Warcraft released their interface API and made modding a selling point. Then, in future patches, they incorporate features of the most popular and stable mods. They have outsorced development and marketing, to people paying them $15 per month.

  7. It’s the same kind of thing with “CounterStrike”. It was a fan-made change to Half Life, but eventually the original company licensed it and sold it.

  8. ubu roi says:

    Heck, just about every “capture the flag” game out there was inspired by a Quake mod that later become official. And then there’s the still unofficial but highly useful tools that spawn things like Gordon Frohman.

  9. Sade says:

    The lowest requirements represent a computer which will at least launch the game.

    The fact of the matter is that you tried to run Oblivion on a video card barely capable of DX9, let alone the complex scenery in Oblivion. Before criticizing the developers, perhaps you should have tried this game on at least a midrange system- heck, even a lowrange modern video card,like a GeForce 7300 or Radeon X1300.

  10. Shamus says:

    The lowest requirements represent a computer which will at least launch the game.

    Launching the game isn’t good enough. I didn’t pay to launch the game. I paid to PLAY the game.

    Before criticizing the developers, perhaps you should have tried this game on at least a midrange system- heck, even a lowrange modern video card,like a GeForce 7300 or Radeon X1300.

    So I need to buy $200 of hardware before I could criticize the developers? Are you for real?

    DX9 has nothing to do with this. Games have had lighting for over a decade. There is no excuse. The fact that a user made mod came out and hacked the game into working on the old hardware proves my point: The developers could have made this work. They should have finished the job, raised the system requirements, or let the buyer know that the game would be a near unplayable mess on certain cards. Anything else is screwing the customer. End of story.

  11. Jurrubin says:

    And I’ll never buy Oblivion. I’ve been playing Morrowind (and adding player-gen’d mods) since its Game of the Year version was available and I still haven’t been through my selection of mods. Why pay for new games when the player-built mods for older games are better and run faster on older machines, saving me hardware upgrade costs? And if/when I do upgrade my hardware, the older games run even better! I’m looking at continuing to play Morrowind for at least the next 3 years.

  12. Xzan says:

    Hey, i was looking around google and i wondered if any one knew of a mod that would allow people to play oblivion on older systems? I wouldent mind playing Oblivion with Morrowind grafix as long as i got to play the game. Just wondering if any one can help me out? :P

  13. Xzan says:

    By the way, the D&D dice looks really spiffy.

  14. zsnesfreak says:

    mine was even worse! then again, i dont have the minimum requirements for the processor but a good video card… but yea, i can only play Oblivion with Oldblivion.

  15. FreakOuut says:

    The reason that all you stuff sucks is because you have your grafics on the very low setting which accually replaces the textures and removes lightinng so that older computers can play it

    i have the same problem and the same card

  16. DaveJ says:

    Games have had lighting for over decade, ok.

    This doesn’t mean you can play recent games with ten year old hardware.

    Isn’t it a touch selfish to say that games must never improve if I have to buy a better computer?

  17. Shamus says:

    Another person shuffling in here without reading what I said and making a fool of themselves.

    Hey, if they don’t support my hardware, fine. BUT THEN DON’T LIST MY HARDWARE AS SUPPORTED ON THE SIDE OF THE BOX. This is particularly important since most places won’t let you RETURN a game for money.

    Get it?

  18. Malkara says:

    Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

  19. Julia says:

    Hm, if only the FDA regulated software, maybe the hardware specs printed on the box would conform a lot more closely to reality. :)

  20. Whoot says:

    Hmmm. I got Oblivion for the 360 and i dont have that problem at all. I CAN make my game look like that if i turn the lighting slider way up so that shadows no longer exist, but it isnt like that by default.

  21. guy says:

    Um, it was a problem with the fact that the hardware shamus has wasn’t actually supported by the game, despite the fradulant claim on the box. the Xbox360 is, which is why your game works.

  22. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Hey… does it help even if my computer is better than that? I’m somewhat… collecting optimization mods for Oblivion, and every little bit helps.

  23. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Never mind. It doesn’t. Too bad, as downgrading to 1GB ram from 2GB really hurt my performance.

  24. ChapterGrim says:

    For: Being a general idiot fanboi.

    1. David says:

      Hardly fair…

      Comment is free!

      A fan I am, an idiot I’m not.
      This might be a few years late; but get a grip.

      A rubbish rig is rubbish…

      Unless your an idiot it’s fairly simple.

      The game will work best on hardware released from 6 months prior to the release date onwards, period – otherwise you’ll need to mod it. It’s the whole package…

      1. David says:

        Sorry not release date.

        Development date. Say 4 years prior. Top spec.

        My bad.

  25. henrebotha says:

    Freaking amen man. I am in exactly the same situation… Different hardware, but of the same level and I also need Oldblivion to run it. I think it is utterly shameful how much Oblivion sucks compared to how little it does suck when one takes brilliant mods and other third-party plugins such as Oldblivion and Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul into consideration. Bethesda created an engine, basically, and left its gaming community to get pissed off enough so they would make a finished game of it themselves. I can see why – it saves Bethesda time, money, and playtesting hassles, while they still sell the same number of copies. But it’s ridiculous.

    It’s almost tempting not to touch commercial games ever, and only stick to the brilliant material that the gaming community comes up with themselves.

    Look at Portal: it’s one of the most imaginative, revolutionary games of the past ten years, and it was pretty much made by gamers. Not gamers who want to make money, gamers who want to make badass games.

  26. evileeyore says:

    Thanks for the tip about Oldblivion. I’m running on a decent machine (dual core, 2 gigs ram, GeForce 9500) and I still have to set to the lowest graphics and it still slogs…

    Giving Oldblivion a try now.

  27. Diamondwolf says:

    I am just going to point out that the failure was not bad graphics or poor coding (oblivion runs fine on my system, with graphics superior to the xbox’s) but the publisher idiot move of making the game for high end machines and forgetting to optimize it (or even make it playable beyond launching) for low end machines that made up the majority of their audiance (I couldn’t play it until I upgraded to a spiffy, new, expensive graphics card that by all rights I shouldn’t of had to do).

    It really is shameful that they didn’t spend the small amount of time to optimize. There isn’t any point in defending them in fanboy pride.

    But, thank you for the link to the mod, will most definitely help with the occasional framerate stutter.

  28. Steve says:

    I can’t really agree with this because I only played it on the 360 version. Writing could use some work on Fo3 and Oblivion but when I say some I mean covering some huge freakin’ plotholes. Game was kinda meh to me not bad not good but playable and a bit fun.

  29. Ian says:

    Heh, I remember reading this article a few years ago and perpetually nodding as I looked over it.

    I remember buying Oblivion, taking it home, and installing it on my P4-2.8 and its humble GeForce 6600GT. Despite my system, for the most part, meeting the recommended requirements, Oblivion ran incredibly sluggishly no matter how much I lowered the detail settings. The game ranged from being tolerable (walking around) to being unplayable (during combat, or inside of the Oblivion gates).

    Fast forward to a few years later — mid-2008. I loaded Oblivion onto my shiny new quad-core with a GeForce 9800GTX. Now, this card allows me to play Crysis with smooth framerates on high detail. I can play the likes of FEAR 2 very smoothly at a beautiful 1920×1200. This system has been able to handle just about everything I throw at it with either high or maxed out graphical settings. Guess what? Oblivion, at 1280×800, stutters regularly and noticeably. This computer, despite being several steps under high-end when I built it, easily blows everything from 2006 out of the water, yet can’t handle Oblivion at a stable framerate without hacks and fixes.

    I rest my case.

  30. guy says:

    This is way late, but i recently got my hands on oblivion with my shiney, reportedly above crysis recommended specs, computer and have your issues. Hoping oldblivion will work for me.

  31. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    This probably TOO late now, but anyways:

    A few years ago I was stuck playing Oblivion on the lowest of the low settings, including 640x480px screen resolution on a 1600x900px monitor, because my rig wasn’t a gaming rig, and made Oblivion run like crap. I still enjoyed it, I still realised that although my system hardly met the minimum requirements, I could still boot it up and run into the fog and 2D trees, and still have fun. I didn’t complain about the shading, or lighting, when I know a game is going to run bad on old/terrible hardware. I knew that if my computer could at least load the game and if it was playable (I’m not fussy, 15fps is good enough) I had fun. I didn’t whine when my system was too low-end because reasons and couldn’t play a game with shiny lighting and textures.

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